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‘Conservation Dogs’ Help to Save an Endangered Species

By Linda Cole

Dogs have been bred for centuries to do specific jobs. Some breeds have a variety of jobs they excel at. The Anatolian Shepherd was bred to do one thing and do it well – guard his flock. Because of his dedication, bravery and size, this breed is being used in Africa as a conservation dog to help save the fastest cat on the planet, the endangered cheetah, from extinction. The cheetah is built for speed and can easily reach a top speed of 70 mph..

The Anatolian Shepherd is a very imposing canine; males stand 28-30 inches and weigh 100-150 pounds, and females stand 26-28 inches and weigh 90-130 pounds. This dog is very powerful, and bred for endurance and speed. The true origin of the breed is unknown, but it's believed they are a descendant of the Tibetan Mastiff and were brought to Turkey 6,000 years ago by migrating shepherds crossing over the Himalayas from Central Asia. They were first used as war dogs and in hunting, but later bred to be guardians for flocks and families.

Because the dog is the same size and color as his flock, he blends in with the livestock which gives him an advantage over a predator that might think a flock is left unguarded. This dog is extremely loyal, very intelligent, has remarkable speed that can match that of a wolf, and will fiercely protect property, people or other animals he considers to be his. He is well equipped to take on wolves, lions, jackals, bears, mountain lions, and other predators. The Anatolian Shepherd will stand his ground and never back down when it comes to protecting whatever he is in charge of.

The Cheetah Conservation Fund began a program in 1994 in Namibia, Africa to educate farmers on how they could protect their livestock and preserve the endangered cat that had turned to their livestock for prey. In the 1980s, a severe drought hit Namibia and as the cheetah's natural prey died out, the cat was forced to turn to the farmers' livestock which was the only other food source available. The Conservation Fund set up the Livestock Guarding Dog Program and proved that cheetahs and farmers could live together in peace. The program has been a huge success. When the puppies are 14 to 16 weeks old, they are put into a flock they will be guarding and live with the livestock so they can form a bond. Because the dogs are territorial and protective, they will guard their flock with their life.

Before the program began, farmers were allowed to trap or kill cheetahs that posed a threat to their livestock, even though cheetahs were listed as an endangered species. The cheetah population was quickly declining due to a loss of habitat, a loss of their natural prey, and from farmers who killed them as vermin. The fastest cat on the planet was down to just 2,500 left in the wild in southern Africa. The Livestock Guarding Dog Program stopped the declining numbers and turned them around. The big cats in Namibia have recovered to around 3,000. Worldwide, there is only an estimated 10,000-12,000 cats left in the wild, a huge decrease from 100,000 cats in 1900.

The Conservation Wildlife Fund works with farmers to teach them about managing their livestock in a more responsible way by controlling diseases and building proper enclosures that can keep predators out. Farmers discovered the Anatolian Shepherd dog also keeps other predators away from their flocks and have welcomed the dogs into their flocks.

In the United States, the Anatolian Shepherd wasn't brought to this country until the 1950s. Today the breed is used by ranchers and farmers across the country to protect their livestock from wolves, mountain lions, bears, coyotes and other predators. The dog is considered a rare breed, but is becoming more popular because they do their job so well. Breeders are passionate about making sure the breed maintains its hardiness, work ethic, loyalty, calmness and independent, attentive nature.

I found two great You Tube videos from the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens. Cathryn Hilker is known as the “Cheetah Lady” and runs the Cincinnati Zoo Cat Ambassador Program which helps educate school kids about the endangered cheetah. In this video, Cathryn talks about one of their Anatolian Shepherd dogs and how they are helping to save cheetahs. This video is a tribute to Cathryn Hilker who is credited with saving the cheetah from extinction through her dedication and conservation efforts over the years. If you love big cats and dogs, both videos will give you a smile and a brief education on the importance of conservation.

Top photo by Charles Barilleaux
Bottom photo by Jessica Reeder

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